Meet the New Boss: The 3 Biggest CEO Changes of 2014 So Far

Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella Speaks At The Worldwide Partner Conference
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

There are many new faces occupying chief executive desks at America's big companies recently. According to data compiled by global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, from January through July of this year, U.S.-based firms collectively announced the replacement of 766 CEOs -- that's the highest number for that period since 2008.

Here's a look at three of the more high-profile leadership changes in 2014 among big-name companies.

Microsoft -- Satya Nadella

Microsoft (MSFT) doesn't like switching out its chief executives too often. The IT giant was headed for nearly a quarter of a century by co-founder Bill Gates before Steve Ballmer replaced him in January 2000.

As CEO, Ballmer tried to broaden Microsoft from an purveyor of PC operating systems and associated software into a "devices and services" company. But outside of the successful Xbox game console, it couldn't seem to get a firm grip on either, making little impact on the hot market for gadgets like MP3 music players and mobile computing devices.

In February, Satya Nadella, a 20-year-plus Mircosoft veteran, was tapped to replace Ballmer. He's moved past "devices and services," aiming for the company to become what he termed, in an open letter to employees, "the productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world."

That won't be a simple task for a company that has yet to prove that it can harness its considerable resources to sell more than just PC software and Xboxes. It's still saddled with those halfhearted devices and services like the Bing search engine, which tilts at windmills against the mighty Google (GOOG), and the Surface line, competing in the crowded tablet segment against dominant leader Apple (AAPL).

General Motors -- Mary Barra

The ascent of Mary Barra to CEO at General Motors (GM) was yet another step forward for women in the executive suite, coming as it does on the heels of the appointments in recent years of Marissa Mayer to CEO of Yahoo (YHOO) and Meg Whitman to CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). Barra's tenure as chief executive, which began in January, marks the first time any global car maker has had a female chief executive.

As the new boss, Barra, a 33-year company veteran, certainly has plenty of work to do. Struggling GM was a big recipient of the government's recession-era Troubled Asset Relief Program, with the Treasury Department effectively nationalizing the company in order to get it riding on a better road. Treasury gripped the wheel for years, selling the last of its shares in December 2013.

But the new year brought new troubles; barely two months after Barra started as CEO, the auto giant was rocked by a scandal involving faulty ignition switches. So far, Barra's management of the issue indicates that she's got the stuff to be a good CEO. In her testimony to Congress on the matter, she took full responsibility for resolving the problem, and resolutely promised to find out the cause of it.

Home Depot -- Craig Menear

Talk about a hard act to follow. Home Depot's (HD) outgoing CEO Frank Blake has presided over years of increasing revenues and net profit, driving the company's stock to its all-time high.

Keeping up this momentum will be one of the biggest challenges, if not the biggest challenge, for CEO-to-be Craig Menear. At the moment he's the company's president of U.S. retail, and he'll formally replace Blake on Nov. 1.

Menear has worked in retail for 34 years and for Home Depot since 1997. Among other duties, he's managed its supply chain efforts, its online presence and its marketing.

As for that e-tailing experience, he'll need it in the new job. The company is planning to spend around $1.5 billion on capital expenditures this year, and much of that will go toward what it terms "interconnected retail and technology." Internet commerce now accounts for over 4 percent of its sales, a figure that's sure to grow given the ever-increasing popularity of online shopping.

Accelerated Change

The pace of change at the top has increased over the past few years. January-July 2014's tally of 766 departures is 5 percent higher than the 729 recorded at the same point in the previous year, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas data. The latter figure, in turn, also represents a 5 percent increase on a year-over-year basis.

So if recent trends continue, we're going to have a great many more CEO comings and goings this year. Expect at least a few more big-name companies to do the CEO shuffle between now and the end of December.

Motley Fool contributor Eric Volkman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, General Motors, Google (A and C shares), Home Depot, and Yahoo!. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google (A and C shares), Microsoft, and Yahoo!. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Our special free report shares ourfavorite high-yield dividend stocks.